Area climber tackles myth and mountains

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Edwin Bernbaum grew up Jewish in the shadow of the Andes Mountains.

But it took several years and an avalanche to show him the connection between the two.

Bernbaum, who now lives in Berkeley, started climbing mountains as a teen in Ecuador, where his father was in the foreign service. He continued the avocation as he grew older, and tried his hand at climbing in the Himalayas.

Once, as he was part way up Nepal's Annapurna, his climbing-party was caught in an avalanche. Bernbaum survived, and soon after his near-catastrophe, he met a Buddhist abbot who told him about Shambhala, which in Tibetan Buddhist cosmology is a Shangri-la-like realm of peace and contentment.

Bernbaum's interest in the role of mountains and religion in mythology was born.

He has pursued that premise in several books, including his most recent, titled "Sacred Mountains of the World," which won a Commonwealth Club gold medal.

The book will also underpin his upcoming presentation at the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco, "Mount Sinai to Zion: The Spiritual Heights of Judaism."

As part of the Bureau's Second Annual Feast of Jewish Learning, Bernbaum will explore mountains' role in Jewish culture.

The University of California, Berkeley, research associate has delivered similar talks to the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mountains, Bernbaum says, are natural symbols. Mount Sinai plays an important part in the Bible, as Judaism is literally born when Moses receives the covenants on its peaks. And prophets saw the city of Jerusalem as a combination of two sacred mountains, Zion and Moriah.

"With no disrespect meant to Sir Edmund Hillary, who made the first ascent of Mount Everest, probably the most influential person to climb a mountain [was] Moses," Bernbaum says.

"And he didn't climb Mount Sinai to conquer it, but to receive something from it that would benefit many other people."

In Berkeley, whose peaks are attractive but hardly Olympian, Bernbaum continues to pursue his avocation, having recently worked with Matt Biers-Ariel of the Center for Jewish Living and Learning.

Together they developed Burning Bush Expeditions, which leads tours to mountain retreats where travelers experience nature's influence on Judaism. (For more information, call (510) 839-2900.)

Mountains have clearly played a big part in Bernbaum's life. He met his wife Diane, the principal of the Midrasha in Berkeley, an inter-congregational Hebrew high school, in Katmandu.

And the peaks and valleys of Nepal helped him discover his own spiritual roots.

"You don't have to go off to the mountains, but I think they are places where you can make contact with something back at home," Bernbaum said.

"It's sometimes easier to find that in the mountains first. You can find it in any natural setting. For some its the mountains, or the seashore, or the forest. It's interesting that's what happens in Judaism.

"It's very important to renew those qualities in the environment that renew people. And those aren't just economic or ecological."